Marie-Josée Lord, no falling star!by Réjean Beaucage / Wah Keung Chan
/ August 7, 2005
Marie-Josée Lord’s arrival from Haiti at the age of five
in Quebec’s historic capital marked the beginning of her musical
education. There was a piano in her adoptive family’s home. Her
parents, both high-school science teachers, were delighted to see how much the
instrument intrigued her and particularly how quickly she learned.
Lord began piano lessons at the age of seven. "I
stopped studying piano between the ages of fourteen and seventeen because I was
also learning the violin, and there were my high-school studies too. But I hurt
my shoulder in an accident, had to stop the violin, and finally entered the
Conservatory to study piano."
Aware of her own limitations as a pianist, Lord felt
it didn’t hold much future for her. "When I reached university, I had to make
up my mind about what I wanted to do. I didn’t see myself as a concert pianist
— because in that case I should by that time have been giving concerts for
several years already. I didn’t see myself as an accompanist, either. You might
say that I didn’t hit it off with the piano…" At this point she almost left
music for psychology, disillusioned by the fact that after so much study she
probably wouldn’t be able to earn a proper living playing instrument. "I wasn’t
passionate about the piano, but when I decided to give it up, I discovered
singing. I saw a rehearsal of the Quebec Conservatory’s music workshop and I understood
the art. ‘That’s it!’ I said to myself. I had discovered an art form that was
everything I’d been looking for. It was like finding the man of your life!"
Twenty at the time, never having been to the opera,
and in her last year of dilatory piano studies – she had already decided to
give them up – a friend encouraged Lord to take voice lessons. Just for fun,
she agreed. Surprised by Lord’s quick progress, her friend introduced Lord to a
music professor who in turn suggested she reaudition for the Conservatory’s
"Of course I already had a solid grounding in music,
having won first prize in solfège, dictation, etc., so I was able to
concentrate on learning this new discipline. I tend to learn quickly and am
inclined to lose motivation, so I asked my teacher, Madame Martel-Cistellini,
to make me work at an advanced level to keep up my interest. As a result, my
marks weren’t as high as they might have been because of the level of
difficulty that I imposed upon myself. My ego may have suffered, but it was the
challenge I had given myself, to do better. I finally had the marks I wanted at
the graduate level."
Lord began studying voice in 1992 (she started as a
mezzo-soprano), had a contract in lyric theatre for the summer of 1994, and
gave her first recital in 1996. Things progressed rapidly. At the Quebec
Conservatory, she sang the role of Turandot in 1995 and Suor Angelica in 1998.
In 1999 Lord took on another challenge by moving to Montreal for Opéra de
Montréal’s Atelier lyrique. "I found the first summer literally overwhelming,"
she says. "Everyone knows there’s a certain rivalry between Montreal and Quebec
City, which meant I wasn’t necessarily welcomed with open arms. I’d been with
the same teacher for seven years in Quebec, where I was fairly well known in
musical circles. Now I had to begin again. It was difficult to adapt. I spent
three years without being able to give my complete trust to another teacher.
After a year of solitude, I found the second year difficult from the standpoint
of voice. I was incapable of taking part in competitions or auditions, I
couldn’t control my voice anymore…"
In 2002, three years after leaving Quebec City, Lord
was understudying Violetta in a summer production of La Traviata, when
stage director Renaud Doucet encouraged her to study with soprano Lyne Fortin.
"I was finally ready to put my trust in a new teacher. Fortin helped me
enormously with breathing, voice control, relaxing tension and the automatic
compensatory movements that the body develops. Today my voice is far more even
and I’ve made great progress in reaching high notes. She’s very straightforward
and doesn’t sugar-coat her remarks. When I’m not singing well she doesn’t
hesitate to tell me so! She’s like pianist Esther Gonthier, with whom I’ve
worked a lot. It keeps you humble and able to see how much you still have to
learn. I know that right now I still have to develop a lot of personal
confidence so that I can be more sure of myself and exercise greater control
over the flow of my voice." After three years her new teacher’s guidance bore
fruit, and her date book began to fill up. When Lord sang for the press in
April 2003 during Opéra de Montréal’s season launch, the difference was already
clearly evident. Lord’s portrayal of Liù in Turandot with the Opéra de
Québec in October 2003 was her breakthrough. She went on to a successful Mimi
in La Bohème at the Opéra de Montréal in January 2004, where she also
reprised Liù in October of the same year. Reviewers discovered a soprano who is
also a fine actress, one who renders the emotion in the libretto with
Marie-Josée Lord received enormous public and critical
acclaim in November of 2004 for her role as Marie-Jeanne in the symphonic
version of the rock opera Starmania, performed with the Montreal
Symphony Orchestra to celebrate the work’s 25th anniversary. She sang the same
role to similar acclaim in Paris in January and February of 2005. Further
performances with the MSO were soon announced (for June 21 and 22). (At the
moment of writing, the MSO is undergoing a general and unlimited strike,
jeopardizing these performances). The work will also be performed by the Quebec
Symphony Orchestra to open the Quebec Summer Festival in a major outdoor
concert on the Plains of Abraham, July 7.
"It’s something I didn’t expect!" says Marie-Josée. "I
barely knew Starmania except for the tunes that everyone heard on the
radio. I didn’t realize what a phenomenon it was. I took part in it thinking
that a pop concert with the MSO would give me added experience, period. I never
thought it would be such a success, especially if you think of how many
different versions people have already been able to hear." Even though
Starmania is a hybrid project removed from opera, its enormous success has
given the soprano important visibility.
Lord will be in the spotlight again when she
represents Canada at the prestigious BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2005
competition from June 11 to 19. "This is the second time I’ve tried to register
for the Cardiff competition. I didn’t have much hope because there are so many
candidates, so I didn’t feel any great pressure. The judge asked me to sing
"Signora ascolta" from Turandot, which I know well, then asked me to do
it again with various changes. After a pause, he asked for "Donde lieta usci"
from La Bohème. We talked, then he asked me after another pause to sing
"Stridono lassù" from I Pagliacci. The audition was held in New York,
and after I got home I learned that I would be one of the twenty-five
participants." Check out the results in next month’s La Scena Musicale.
On August 6, Lord will appear at the Orford Festival
with pianist Esther Gonthier in a recital of Spanish and Gershwin songs. The
singer’s 2005-2006 season is already booked with numerous prestigious
performances, including the role of Louana in Chabrier’s L’Étoile
in November and an MSO concert in March. We’ll doubtless have many occasions to
write about Marie-Josée Lord!
[Translated by Jane Brierley]
Festival d’été de Québec :
BBC Cardiff Singer of the World 2005 :
Festival Orford : http://www.arts-orford.org
Opéra de Montréal :
What role would she like to play more than any other?
"I’ve already had the chance to do it: Mimi in La
Bohème (January 2004, Opéra de Montréal). It’s a wonderful role and I’d
like to do it over and over, because there are so many details. The character
is simple, but the interaction between voice and music offer so many
possibilities that you need a number of performances to explore them. I also
like Nedda in I Pagliacci by Leoncavallo. It’s a very short role that
supplies the intensity of Verdi and the drama of La Bohème, all in
forty-five minutes. It’s perfect for a young soprano like me, who doesn’t want
to strain her voice!"
Something to strive for?
"I attended a concert by Renée Flemming and Bryn
Terfel, and what struck me first was not so much Renée Flemming’s quality of
voice as her capacity to adapt perfectly to the style of each of the songs she
sings. Whether it’s Mozart or Gershwin, she’s 100% on the appropriate style,
pronunciation, and so on. Right now I’m still looking for someone in Montreal
to help me work toward this goal. At a certain moment in your career you begin
working more and more on details like this, and the people who can help you are
harder and harder to find. This is the next objective, but my ultimate aim is
to be able to use my voice like an instrument. You often hear people say about
a concert, ‘There were three musicians and a singer.’ But I consider myself a
musician and I want to exercise total control over my instrument."
Any inspiring singers?
"I like Barbara Hendricks for her finesse, I
like Jessye Norman’s voice, and I like Joan Sutherland for the seeming ease
with which she sings, no matter what the song. Among the men I really like Bryn
Terfel. He represents what I’d like to be, which is someone simple who sings
with his heart."
Recital or opera?
"I like both, but of course you’re more free in a
recital and you can show your own originality better. With opera, you’re not
able to have as much liberty in your interpretation. You can always work it out
with the director, but I tell myself that the best strategy is to agree with
all his requests and then do what I want. Anyway, after the premiere, he’s no